Klondike

Joe Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson, left) and Bill Haskell (Richard Madden) with sluice box at mining camp in "Klondike." (Dan Power / Discovery Channel)

The new miniseries "Klondike" is Discovery's attempt to stake its claim in the modern-day gold rush of scripted drama.

Like its main characters, "Klondike" comes to a landscape both limitless and increasingly crowded. The series, which premieres Monday, relies on tools that have brought success to others, in this case big names, majestic scenery, historical realism that leans heavily on mud and unshaven jaws.

Working from Charlotte Gray's book "Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike," writer Paul Scheuring ("Prison Break") shoots for something like a family-friendly "Deadwood," a slightly sunnier "Hatfields & McCoys" while showcasing an under-chronicled bit of North American history.

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Poet Robert Service made a name rhapsodizing the men who moiled for gold, Jack London too — enough so that he is a minor character in "Klondike." This three-part, six-hour story is flecked with many fine moments but as a whole more serviceable than splendid.

Sam Shepard and Tim Roth are the A-listers here, representing two sides of the frontier coin. Shepard plays historical figure Father William Judge, the steely but humane Jesuit who ministered to Klondike's physically and spiritually sick.

Roth, in full fiend mode, is the Count, who having not struck gold seeks to control all he sees. They are, it almost goes without saying, fabulous, bringing to "Klondike" the shifting hues of deep-water characters that have become a hallmark of prestige drama.

Unfortunately, they are, for the most part, B-plot. The star of "Klondike" is "Game of Thrones'" Richard Madden. (And not the only debt "Klondike" owes "Thrones"; the score and imagery of the opening credits will leave you searching for a three-eyed raven against the snow banks.)

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Madden plays Bill Haskell, a gentleman and a scholar who with his best friend, Byron Epstein (the charming Augustus Prew), have gone west, intent on the sort of name-making adventure that one associates with stories beginning on a locomotive.

A chance meeting with a man and his nugget persuades them to head to the Klondike, where they make their way to the raw and rugged town of Dawson in the Yukon Territory.

There the two find many things, including Judge, the Count, the slippery con man Soapy (Ian Hart), the feisty (and historically based) businesswoman Belinda Mulrooney (Abbie Cornish), her laconic bartender Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson), a tragic prostitute named Sabine (Conor Leslie) and, of course, London (Johnny Simmons) and his dog. Called Dog.

More important, Bill and Byron quickly discover their own naivete. The Klondike is not just a place, it's a fever dream. Far beyond the reaches of civilization, grubbing in the mud and slush as they burn with fear, envy and greed, men lose much of what makes them human.

If that seems a little overwrought, well, welcome to "Klondike."

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It's not that Madden can't quite carry "Klondike," so much as he is burdened with too many missions. In discovering this alternate universe of greed and violence, Haskell comes to represent Civilization while exploring his own raging urges. He also has to illustrate the physical and emotional difficulties of surviving the bitter winter, protecting his claim and mining for gold, often in the rain.

It's a lot to ask of any man, or actor, particularly one hemmed in by the show's semi-educational platform, which more than occasionally pauses to deliver sermons on things like the anti-Semitism and sexism of the time.

There are many fine moments in "Klondike," cinematic scenes of grandeur and dialogue that rise to poetry. But too often both then fall prey to self-conscious staginess, many repetitive scenes of dirt and endless conversations about the animal nature of man.

Madden is likable enough, and Cornish gives Belinda a depth her well-moisturized complexion and nifty frontier-wear belie, but their story too is burdened by Scheuring's desire to make both completely likable. After a promising first installment, "Klondike" becomes too obvious a sum of its familiar parts, willing to sacrifice storytelling for moralizing.

This leaves the audience no choice but to mimic the starving, obsessed miners and search for a few golden nuggets among the frozen slush. They do shine, but it's hard work.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com